Have you ever wondered where surnames (or last names) come from? After all, humans didn’t walk out of the cave with them attached. European surnames came from many sources but generally fell into four groups: patronymic, locative, occupational or status, and nicknames. Read on to learn more about the history of these hereditary names.


A surname (or family name) is the part of a person’s name that tells you who they are. It can be derived from several things, such as occupation, paternity, location, or nickname. Surnames are integral to any personal identification system and can be essential for genealogists.

A person’s last name may change upon marriage, as many cultures follow the practice of women taking their husband’s surname. In the past, a woman could also lose her rights as a distinct legal entity by becoming feme covert upon marriage and having her identity merged with that of her husband in official documents.

Traditionally, most surnames have been derived from patronymics (named after the father), occupational names, or place names. However, the lines between these categories blur. For example, “Ben Johnson” is a shortened version of “Johnson’s son.” People with occupational surnames were named after a specific job or traded they or their ancestors did. These include names such as Baker, Smith, and Taylor. Often, these names were used to distinguish a person from others who worked in the same profession. In other instances, names were derived from geographical features such as rivers, mountains, or villages. This is a standard method of naming children in Scandinavia, where suffixes such as -bo, -by, -garden, -her, -land, -rud, and -stad is frequently seen in surnames.


The evolution of surname history has been influenced by culture and nation. In many cases, last names were used differently for all cultures well into modern times. For example, in European culture, family names were predominantly occupational or patronymic until the 15th century; however, some cultures, such as China and Turkey, began using last names as early as the 14th century. Language changes have also influenced the use of surnames. As languages evolve, the meanings of words change as well. For instance, some name changes were made to avoid negative associations. Bockstruck cites the example of an early Scottish surname, Ferguson, which was changed to Gunn after the bearer moved to a region settled by Palatine Germans who spoke English. Other name changes were due to slang or colloquial pronunciations. Studying a surname has long been a natural complement to family history research. It’s a field now embraced by genealogists, DNA testers, and geographers. As the availability of online resources increases, it’s becoming more accessible than ever to explore the history, evolution, distribution, and meaning of a surname. The Guild of One-Name Studies, an organization active in the United Kingdom, lists several surname-related databases and research resources. Many local libraries subscribe to these and other databases.


We all take our surnames for granted, but they can reveal much about our ancestors. They can tell us where our ancestors came from, what they did for a living, or even their sense of humor.

Surnames can be derived from four primary sources: patronymic (named after the father), occupational, nickname, or place name. However, the boundaries between the different categories can sometimes blur. For example, a place name like Green might refer to the color of the person’s clothing or could be an abbreviation of a more descriptive location, such as a village green or a green field.

In most cultures, the surname comes after the given name or forename. However, the order is reversed in some countries, such as China and Hungary. Likewise, in the case of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his middle name was his wife’s maiden name.

Before the Qin dynasty, the state of China was a Feng Jian (feudal) society where family lineages had significant political and military power. Therefore, it was important for nobles to distinguish their origin from other noble families. To do so, they added a second element to their names, known as shi and xing. The addition of shi indicated their seniority and helped identify the heir apparent of a noble family. This practice was then adopted by the lower classes as well.


Surnames, also called family names or last names, are added to the end of a person’s given name. They typically identify a person’s lineage, occupation, location, or other distinguishing characteristics. Most surnames are patronymic, meaning they derive from a father or grandfather’s name. However, some are matronymic, a name deriving from a mother or female ancestor. A few surnames are occupational (meaning a trade or job), and others are descriptive, such as Red or Short. Until about the late 1700s or early 1800s, Jewish people and some Scandinavians didn’t use family names. The practice was introduced in the 1700s and 1800s by governments that assigned them to collect taxes or conscript men into the military. In the past, women often took their husbands’ names upon marriage, and it was common for them to lose their surnames. This is why genealogists need to know how a given surname may have changed or been misspelled over the years. One example was the morphing of the surname Ferguson to Gunn when it moved from Irish-speaking Scotland to Pennsylvania, where it was pronounced differently than in Scottish English. This reflects language shifts due to the corruption of speech, regional accents, translation, and conscientious changes over time.